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Picture this: You see a shirt in a store that “looks cool.” Does it look cool just because you are specifically, naturally, without any outside influence, attracted to it, or because society has conditioned you into having a preference toward that type of clothing so as to be more acceptable?
Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we? In the essay “The Decorated Body,” France Borel explains his views on the tendency we (humans) have to customize our bodies and change them from their original, natural state. He goes on to blame our innate need to conform to our society and its norms. I find this topic to be quite interesting, because there’s such a blurry line between changing yourself to reflect who you are as a person, and changing yourself to reflect who society wants you to be?
From the moment we are born, we are constantly conditioned by everyone around us. We are relentlessly learning what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. We learn through trial and error how to get attention and praise from others, and how not to do so. One of the most vital environments for this type of socialization is of course, school. In school, we are taught by our peers what clothing and behavior is acceptable and what is not. We are taught this through positive and negative reinforcement. Do something acceptable, you’ll get praised and you may even become popular! Do something too unacceptable, you run the risk of getting shunned or even worse, bullied. We learn that the closer we mimic the popular kids, the more we are accepted by our peers. The less we stick out, the less negative attention we get. We are conditioned by this, and many other factors, to the point that we subconsciously prefer to do, say, and wear the most acceptable things we know of.
We go to the store and pick clothing that fits the image we want people to see when they look at us. We don’t dress ourselves for who we are, we dress ourselves for whatever we want to be perceived as. Every one of us has this image in their head that they aspire to someday fit into. Some of us want people to see us as tough and rebellious, like we don’t care what anyone thinks. Others want people to look at them and see femininity and grace. We dress in accordance to how we wish to be treated. This phenomenon is not limited to clothing, either.
Whenever we have a choice to make, we always analyze how others will react to it. Before we do or say most anything, it goes through a “filter” of sorts, to help assure that whatever we do, we will attract our preferred type of attention. There is no such thing as a purely uninfluenced preference, opinion, or action. Of course, this doesn't change the fact that we are all born with an innate rarity that makes it impossible for us to 100% mimic someone or something else. In other words, we are stuck with our individuality, no matter how hard we try to get rid of it.
So, are we expressing ourselves or conforming to societal norms? I’d answer with “both,” because what’s the difference, really? An argument can easily be made for either side. Take tattoos, for instance. Street and prison gangs use them to tie themselves to a certain group. There are also many people who use tattoos as a way to help themselves stand out from the crowd, and flaunt their originality. Which, in a way, can also be considered conformity if you think about how encouraged it (sometimes) is to be unique, although we’ll get into that later.
There's also the aspect of clothing our bodies. We are born naked but we don’t stay that way for long before we cover ourselves up, why is that? Have we been conditioned to believe that nudity is this erotic taboo, or do we see our nude bodies as a blank canvas to do what we wish with? Either argument is fairly valid.
Of course, along with the “why?” there’s always the “how?” How we clothe ourselves is also a matter to ponder. Is it to conform? Yes, there are people everywhere who use clothing to identify themselves as a member of a certain group or establishment, such as by wearing team jerseys, school uniforms, band merchandise, employee uniforms, etc. Do we also clothe ourselves in ways to express our personal style and personality? Yes, people can also wear clothing in their own, unique way, generally by taking someone else’s style and then adding their own personal flare to make it into something that’s unique to them.
Finally, there’s the aspect of hair. In most modern societies, women are expected to keep most, if not all of their body hair (besides the hair on top of their head) completely non-existent, either by constant shaving or waxing. If this is not done, they are often considered unclean, slobbish, or manly, among other negative things. Women will often times dye their greying hair to appear younger, more attractive, and more socially acceptable. Then there’s the men, who often must shave their facial hair and/or keep their hair shorter than a certain length in order to get/keep a steady job. In contrast, countless men shave designs into the sides of their heads or into their facial hair as a form of art or self-expression. Not to mention the fact that many employers will turn away respectable and qualified job applicants because of their unnaturally colored hair. Teens dye their hair bright greens and blues and pinks in an attempt to stand out and show their reluctance to conform. Women get pixie cuts to combat the societal expectation of women to have long, feminine hair. Some people curl or straighten their hair, although you can also argue that this is to follow the passing trends. Point being, can body hair be used to conform? Yes. Can it be used to appear more distinctive and unique? Also yes.
These are just a few among the many topics that can be used in both arguments for conformance or for self-expression. Bottom line, there’s definitely a difference, but it’s difficult to interpret.
Above, I showed you how indistinguishable conformity and self-expression can sometimes be. Not only that, but there's also the argument that self-expression is the “new conformity.” Nowadays in many societies, uniqueness can be celebrated. That’s right, it’s cool to be different, socially acceptable, even! Which would make being unique and standing out, everyone’s goal so that they can be accepted by society, correct? In that case, self-expression is equal to conformity.
Confusing as this is, it’s not always the case. It’s only acceptable if you’re different in the correct ways. Be unique in the wrong ways, and you’ll run the risk of being discriminated against, judged, ridiculed, and even bullied. Many people (especially adolescents) can attest to this unfortunate truth. Society tells you “Be different! Be unique! Be yourself!” but as soon as you do, there’s hell to pay. That is, if you’re unattractive. A supermodel can post a picture of herself online wearing glasses, she’s then praised and called a “cute nerd” or a “hipster.” On the flip side, a chubby kid in 4th grade wears them and gets labeled “four eyes” for the rest of the year. See the pattern?
The more you fit into society’s box, the less you suffer socially. Beauty is power. Once you get a taste of it, you want more and more, until you’re trapped in this endless and futile search for perfection. Notice how popular the plastic surgery industry is getting? How about the cosmetic and anti-aging industry? Is their steady and constant growth in popularity just a coincidence? I think not.
This unattainable standard that society sets for us can consume our lives, and if we aren’t careful, it can even handicap us. In most cases, I’m afraid it already has. Think about it, we post pictures on social media, stressing and hoping for our peers to click the “like” button. We scroll Instagram and Facebook for hours, judging people and comparing them with ourselves and others. How about the hours many of us spend to get ready in the morning or before a night on the town? This all adds up. These hours we spend judging, comparing, and primping add up into days, months, even years gone to waste. All that time could’ve been spent on something that would’ve grown you or helped you, like getting an education, working out, doing sports, working towards that promotion, or talking to a family member or close friend about how they’re getting through that hard time of theirs.
We put important and valuable things on the backburner to assure that we are “presentable.” We put appearance first, and everything else second, thus, cheating ourselves in the end.
This pointless race for perfection quickly gets turned into a competition. These are some of the thoughts the average person thinks throughout their day, seeing people online and in real life: Is she prettier than me? Do I have a better body than her? Cuter outfit than her? Does he have a cooler car or bigger muscles than I do? Did more people like his picture than they did mine?
…We turn ourselves against each other, and at what cost? Is it worth it?
Coming into this world, we are as impressionable as sculptor’s clay. It is unsurprising and inevitable that we change and morph throughout our lives. There’s no denying that society plays an undeniable role in shaping who we are, what we look like, and how we treat ourselves and others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. Our innate ability to adapt this well is important, it’s what has gotten us where we are today. It’s how we learn language skills, social skills, and really everything. If we were never influenced by anything, we’d all still be crawling around and babbling like a bunch of adult babies, not being able to communicate with each other because we never learned how to. Despite the struggles we sometimes face because of it, our ability to absorb the world around us and to learn from it is our biggest strength, rivaled only by our need for self-expression and creativity.
This is what makes us human.